Through the fog of disaster: how to understand the news about the nuclear situation in Japan

An Associated Press article on the disaster in Japan, redirected through various Canadian media sites, comes with headlines like “Japan says partial meltdown likely underway at reactor,” “Japan’s nuclear crisis grows,” etc. The job of headline writers is to write headlines that grab the reader’s attention. The dictum “if it bleeds, it leads” is usually paramount in the news business, but in this particular case it has been subordinated, curiously, to another dictum: “if it bleeds, but there is another vaguely scary story related to nuclear energy, then the nuclear story leads.”

There is plenty of blood in the Japanese disaster, but none that has anything to do with the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant, where one and possibly two reactors may have undergone a partial meltdown. However, because the Fukushima story involves the words “nuclear” and “meltdown,” that is the story that has produced the sensational headlines.

I should be clear: at this time (1247 Eastern Time March 13 2011), forty-eight hours into the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, there have been zero deaths related to the Fukushima Daiichi situation.

A vast tragedy brought on by the earthquake and tsunami is unfolding before the world’s eyes. And yet the world’s attention remains fixed on a problem that, from the outset, has been obviously manageable and minor.

(The issue is being kept alive through the efforts of dedicated anti-nuclear activists whose dogged decades-long efforts at media relations are paying off. These activists are feeding a steady stream of sensational misinformation to a world media that recognizes that “nuclear” + “meltdown” = increase in audience and advertising revenue. More about this in upcoming posts.)

I told a Canadian reporter who called mid-day Friday that even if the reactor in question completely melted down, the consequences would be relatively minor. She seemed surprised at this, and I understand why: the word “meltdown” has become, in the western English lexicon, synonymous with ultimate disaster.

Now, why is that? There has been one meltdown in the history of the civilian nuclear industry. That was Three Mile Island accident, in 1979. Everybody has heard of it. Few apparently know that, from the viewpoint of human safety and environmental health, it was a consequence-free event. Nobody died, nobody was injured, and the environment was not damaged.

A group of nuclear industry leaders published an article in Science which looked at the consequences of a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor. The article, offered here courtesy of Rod Adams’s excellent blog Atomic Insights, points out that even if the Three Mile Island meltdown had breached the containment vessel (it did not), very little of the radioactivity would have escaped into the environment:

studies after [the Three Miles Island] accident showed that nearly all of the harmful fission products dissolved in the water and condensed out on the inside containment surfaces.

The Science piece was critiqued by three prominent anti-nuclear advocates. None questioned this central assertion; all elected to take the usual tack of pointing up the probability of a terrorist attack, a scenario that is, when you put any serious thought into it, simply absurd.

The graphic below is a cutaway of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor (courtesy of the Nuclear Energy Institute):

The vertical cylindrical object in the centre of the diagram is the forged steel reactor vessel; in a boiling water reactor design, this will be 10 to 20 centimeters thick. As you can see, the reactor vessel is inside the Primary Containment Structure, which consists of a containment shell (roughly 4 cm thick steel), which itself sits inside roughly a meter of reinforced concrete.

The Three Mile Island reactor was a different design than the Fukushima Daiichi units, but they share common defense-in-depth design features, including reactor vessel plus primary and secondary containment. From the graphic above, the Science article, and reports saying Fukushima has experienced a partial meltdown at most, I feel pretty confident, as I did on Friday, in predicting small consequences at most.

Canada will experience a new nuclear story pretty soon. Environmental assessment hearings on the new reactor construction project at the Darlington station are due to begin a week from tomorrow. Expect every anti-nuclear activist in Canada, and some from abroad, to show up and point to Fukushima as proof that Ontario should choose natural gas instead of nuclear. This debate will no doubt spill over to the Canadian Institute’s Nuclear Symposium in Toronto in late April.

What needs to be emphasized: Fukushima is proof that a 1970s vintage nuclear plant can withstand the effects of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami with no public health consequences.

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9 years ago

reactor 3 is the real nasty one,
MOX fuel with plutonium,
very carcinogenic

Steve Aplin
9 years ago

Carcinogenic if it escapes containment in significant quantities, which so far it has not (and probably will not).

9 years ago

I don’t want to even imagine the worst scenario as this nuclear plant in Fukushima is four times bigger then in Chernobyl. I pity those people who are as survivors there and have no place to go. However they can expect earthquakes anytime nobody could even predict something so huge with enormous impact. I have seen several comments that point out that this is a consequence of Climate changes. I am quite sure that this will bring some movements for many governments to take environmental issues more seriously.

9 years ago

Fukushima is proof that a 1970s vintage nuclear plant can withstand the effects of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami with no public health consequences….

you will go down in history as one of the worst fools to me

Steve Aplin
9 years ago
Reply to  Claudio

Claudio, not sure if you have been following the news but there have still been no fatalities among the Fukushima workers and there has not been a dangerous exposure of a member of the public. And according to Geraldine Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology at Imperial College in London, who has studied the health effects of Chernobyl, there probably won’t be:

Of the myriad problems facing Japan right now, this is one of the minor ones. Of course you wouldn’t get that impression from some media vehicles, but you should always remember their job is to draw readers and viewers. Hence the sensationalist coverage of Fukushima. Don’t confuse the volume and tone of coverage with the size of the real risk.